John Weldon returns to his comic roots
“I now have the luxury of being able to draw absolutely whatever ”
Weldon has come full circle. The Oscar-winning Montreal animator has returned to his artistic roots: the comic book.
Weldon still ranks as one of the National Film Board of Canada’s most celebrated and respected animators. Among his two dozen creations are the cult favourite Log Drivers’ Waltz and Special Delivery, which earned Weldon a trip to the Oscar podium in 1979 to pick up the statuette for Best Animated Short. But when Weldon retired in 2004, after 34 years at the NFB, he decided to go back to his first love.
In 1969, Weldon had published the underground comic, The Pipkin Papers, an innovative and satirical overview of a fastchanging era. It was equal parts maverick Robert Crumb and Elzie Segar, the Popeye creator. Weldon released only a single issue, but it soon became a collector’s item all over the continent.
Weldon also credits that sole copy of The Pipkin Papers for landing him a job at the NFB. “I was able to show it to the head of animation. He could see that not only could I draw, but I could be funny, too. Which came in handy when they wanted to make something sort of funny about public service spots on fishing or filling out income-tax forms.”
The comic-book thrill stayed with him throughout his tenure at the NFB. Rather than spend his retirement years tooling around the garden, he started drawing again with a vengeance and created a new comic book series, Ashcan Alley, which revisits some older themes and characters. Both the chuckles and biting wit of his Pipkin Papers are abundantly in evidence.
But what started out as a hobby has turned into a small oneman enterprise. Weldon has already done seven Ashcan Alley issues and demand was such that they are now being sold at several retail outlets.
“Comics and animation are obviously related art forms,” says Weldon, 63, who works out of his Montreal West home. “But there are certain frustrations in film that I am able to relieve in comics.”
“The film frame is always the same shape and I would have to lay out the frame in every possible format, which really limits you to the centre of the screen. With comic books, you can just jam things all over the place.”
And, oh yeah, there’s the bonus of no longer needing to get approval for projects from countless NFB committees. “I have no employer other than myself,” he says. “I now have the luxury of being able to draw absolutely whatever comes into my mind, and I don’t have to get someone’s stamp of approval.”
In the last copy of Ashcan Alley, there’s a telling frame featuring two of Weldon’s favourite characters, Father Blueberry, a defrocked priest who has lost his religion, and Andromeda Vanguard, a lovably scattered artist. After checking out Vanguard’s latest canvas, a mystified Blueberry laments to Vanguard: “I don’t get it!” To which the artist replies: “You’re not supposed to get it. It’s ART!”
This is a not-so-subtle shot at the pretensions of the art world. “Let’s just say I’ve run into a lot of art in my life,” Weldon says with a sigh. “Much of it has been incomprehensible, even when it’s my friends who have done it.”
It’s no accident that all sorts of quirky characters people Weldon’s comic books. Much like his drawing, there’s much shading. It’s also a time-consuming ordeal. It takes Weldon at least three months to write and draw a single issue. And with the price of a single issue at $3.99, it’s clearly more a labour of love.
“The beauty of it all is that because I am essentially retired I’m not up against any deadline – the way I was at the NFB,” says Weldon, who does the occasional animated musical video when so inspired. “Honestly, if I weren’t selling them at these stores, I’d probably just hand them out on the street and at film festivals.”
He might think twice about just giving them away. Comic books have increasingly become fodder for films: Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Ironman. Who knows? Hollywood could come acalling for Father Blueberry and Andromeda Vanguard.
“These characters have been with me for a long time. I’m very fond of them and would have to retain a level of artistic control.
“After I enjoyed a little success at the NFB, people asked why I didn’t go to Hollywood. The answer was and still is simple: I don’t want to live and work there. I’ve been to Hollywood. I know the atmosphere. One of my assistants at the NFB moved there and became a major Disney animator. He’s living in a fancy house in the hills and has fancy sports cars. I’m very happy for him. But I wouldn’t change places. I’m very happy here.”